About halfway through Dinner in the Dark, the European-imported dining event that came to the Breslin last night for a weekend-long residency, I realized that I was no longer opening my eyes all the way. I had the Northern Lights in front of my eyes (which my dining companion informed me are bursts of extra nerve activity) whether or not I had them open, and since I couldn’t make eye contact with anyone, or see anything, period, it gradually became more trouble than it was worth to haul them open. The experience began around 7 p.m. when our server, Senya, greeted us at the entrance of Liberty Hall, the Ace Hotel’s downstairs event space and makeshift dining room for the occasion. Senya had us form a train behind him, left hand to the left shoulder of the person in front of us, and by the time we rounded the first corner, the light was totally gone.
Plates were taken and passed from an agreed-upon location at the corner of our table, and wine was served in highball glasses, but other than that service was relatively normal, with remarkably few disaster s— no more, I would venture, than your average night at a restaurant. Opaque makes sure to keep their menu a secret, since discovery is a core part of the dining experience, and so my dining companion and I were left to guess what was being presented to us. The first course (which Senya described as a “secret wrapped in an enigma wrapped in a mystery”) was a nubbly round ball that turned out to be one of chef April Bloomfield’s Scotch eggs, made with a finger-food-size quail egg rather than the extra-large chicken eggs she uses in the main dining room.
My companion persevered with his silverware, but I gave up not long into the second course: a tomato and herb salad (we detected dill and basil for sure, and I thought there was perhaps some arugula as well) with a bright vinegar dressing, rusklike croutons, and some sort of goat-cheesy something or other that I licked off my fingers. Third course was crispy skinned fish (companion guessed it was sea bass, but I thought halibut) with some sort of beans in a spiced, gelatinous broth, and fourth course was a lush, fatty cut we thought might have been pork belly, although it had a gaminess that might have been lamb.
Without visual cues, tasting became quite a test of our palates, and I think neither of us performed as well as we thought we would have. Dessert I ate with a spoon, but only because it was some kind of pudding (at one point my companion exclaimed, “Oh! I found cherry!”), and although I’d let go of most of my typical dining-out manners, I hadn’t let go of all of them. Still, my companion at one point described swinging his arms wildly around him, and we joked that we could be completely undressed and no one would ever know. (I did, in fact, unbutton my top for a few minutes, just for kicks.)
After dessert, we were allowed to sit in the darkness a while longer and reflect on the experience: We’d both taken larger bites and eaten more quickly than we otherwise might have. We could see neither how much we were picking up with our forks, nor how much we still had left on our plates, and so the eating became almost a survival game. Where’s the next food? How can I find it? How long will it last? Texture, of course, became much more important, which Bloomfield’s menu catered to, certainly, with the crispy fish and scotch egg, the firm but yielding beans in the third course, the softness of the meat in the fourth course, and the intense richness of the pudding. They’d told us that Dinner in the Dark could be quite a romantic, sensual experience. However, neither of us felt particularly elegant with our hands covered in food, groping the table to find our water glasses.
Returning to the light outside was less painful than it was disorienting. I’d gotten used to floating in what was, to me, an endless nothingness, and so to suddenly see walls again and discern directions and navigate myself was momentarily confusing. Occasionally during the meal a brief glow had passed the table from a lit cell phone in someone’s pocket, and once a curtain at the entrance got displaced and we were offered a half-second’s glance at the space, which was so different from the mental map I’d created for myself as we were led to our table that it barely even registered. Without being able to see our watches, our sense of time went the way of our table manners, and it was 10 p.m. when we finally reemerged. I went straight home and turned on all the lights.